The COVID-19 pandemic has forced governments around the world to impose confinements, forcing billions of people to stay home. This exceptional situation has caused a paradigm shift in lifestyle.
Working, learning, and socializing online has become the norm, as people have dramatically reduced their time in the outside world to limit any chance of getting the new coronavirus.
Internet use is not new, but COVID-19 brought forward this global change in which the internet dominates all aspects of the lives of those who have access to the network.
If the way forward is the internet during those pandemic times, what about war-affected nations with limited internet access?
COVID-19 pandemic accelerates digital transformation
The COVID-19 pandemic and the unprecedented steps taken to curb its spread have changed our lives; it has brought about fundamental changes in the way companies and companies work.
As the deadly virus destroys the world and can continue to destroy it until a vaccine is discovered, the internet has taken over. Studies show how internet traffic has skyrocketed by 50-70% since COVID-19 started.
Trapped at home, people flocked to the internet to carry on with their daily routines like shopping, working and learning, communicating and socializing. Most likely, this will have a lasting impact after the end of the pandemic.
A growing digital divide
Internet access is widely available and offers support to wealthy nations during COVID-19, but this is not the case for almost half of the world's population without such access. Most of these people live in poor, war-torn nations where infrastructure is failing, yet the need for information is more urgent.
In countries at war, many citizens face this additional crisis without the internet. While in wealthy and peaceful nations, the internet has allowed citizens to mitigate the impact of confinement and has allowed them to continue working, studying, communicating, socializing, and accessing information.
In some countries in the Middle East and North Africa, COVID-19 occurred amid an economic crisis and large-scale conflict or insurrection. Years of conflict in Yemen, Syria and Libya have caused great suffering, transfers and destruction. The infrastructure has been the target of attacks by the parties to the conflict with contempt for civilian lives.
For example, in Syria more than 50% of infrastructure is no longer available.
In Libya, much of the telecommunications infrastructure has been destroyed or stolen, including a quarter of the country's mobile phone towers. As a result, basic services – electricity, hygiene, water and enternet – have been paralyzed.
In Yemen, whose situation has been described as the world's worst humanitarian crisis by Relief Web, internet access is a major obstacle. Only 27% of Yemenis, especially young men in urban areas, have access.
Most young people struggle to find a way to connect to the outside world. “The Internet is our oxygen and it is as important as food. I moved from my city to the capital to be able to connect, ”said Ghomdan, a Yemeni journalist who asked Global Voices to only use his first name.
Women in the region are disproportionately affected by this digital divide. Relative to men, few women have internet access, reflecting a regional gender inequality gap with Yemen, Syria and Libya near the bottom of the ranking.
The set of conservative social norms, less access to learning and financial resources, and a hostile online environment prevents women from connecting and accessing information online and minimizes participation in online discussions.
Internet: expensive, low speed and unreliable
In Libya, Syria and Yemen, plagued by conflict and economic chaos, users face low-speed internet at prohibitive costs.
Yemen has the lowest internet speed in the world with an average of only 0.38 megabits per second in 2019: it would take about 30 hours to download a movie of about 5 gigabytes. In January 2020, damage to an undersea cable plunged the country into an internet blackout for more than a month.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the massive closure of schools, affecting 90% of students worldwide, which has led to a culture of virtual learning and online education that is almost impossible without a secure and secure connection. high speed internet.
This also prevents people from communicating and journalists from reporting and reaching a large audience. The slow speed makes it difficult for them to navigate, download or upload material and communicate with sources. It also denies access to valuable and critical resources for writing reports, new articles and daily events.
Without a reliable internet, online conversations or calls via WhatsApp or Facebook are often interrupted or disconnected.
Censorship and lack of content in Arabic
Often the war often includes an information war with the various warring parties trying to control their populations; They censor the internet and keep citizens under close surveillance.
For example, the authorities in Sanaa in Yemen, and in Damascus in Syria, block large numbers of web pages, including national, Arab and foreign news websites. Those restrictions limit access to critical information about the pandemic.
To circumvent censorship, technically savvy users turn to virtual private networks (VPNs) to access blocked content. Although many are reluctant to do so “since it is one more load to the already limited broadband, which slows down the download speed,” according to Coda Story.
While native Arabic speakers represent almost 4.5% of the world's population, less than 1% of total global online content is in Arabic.
The rapid increase in the number of Internet users in Arabic has not meant more content in Arabic – which remains one of the least represented languages online. Almost 70% of the pages are in English. Most online sources on the pandemic are not available in native or indigenous languages, making it difficult for people with basic English and literacy levels to access online public health information.
Internet access is seen as a key enabler of human rights, and governments around the world are committed to providing universal and affordable access by 2020, but the majority of the world's population has lagged behind.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the gap between those with secure internet access and those who see this as a distant prospect. The current conflict in the Middle East only exacerbates and widens those gaps.